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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

After defeating ISIL in Syria, the battle for power in the war-ravaged country begins

If Washington wants to steer a course in Syria, it needs to weaken Russia's grip on the political process, writes Hassan Hassan

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa after retaking the city from ISIS in October 2017. AFP
A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa after retaking the city from ISIS in October 2017. AFP

On December 1, the Syrian regime’s chief negotiator walked out of the Geneva peace talks in protest at what he described as provocative demands by the opposition. Less than a month later, dozens of opposition entities declared their rejection of a peace conference that Moscow intended to organise in the Russian city of Sochi.

The two events represent a double blow to the Russian effort in Syria and point to potential setbacks that might hamper the impressive progress that Moscow has achieved in Syria over the past two years – at least, on a political level.

The Sochi summit, if it happens, would be the crown jewel of Russia's patient diplomacy with regard to the Syrian conflict. The summit is designed to build on the progress made through the Astana process, in which representatives of Syrian rebel groups were gathered by Russia, Iran and Turkey in the Kazakh capital to arrange ceasefire and de-escalate violence.

As the rebels and their closest ally Turkey participated in the process, Russia was able to steadily steer the conflict in a way that favours the regime. Turkey and Iran were largely on the same page as Russia. But preparations for the Sochi summit have created minor tension between Russia and its two partner countries, mostly over what the political track in Sochi would entail.

Ankara, for example, was unhappy about the prospect of inviting the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Kurdish party that it regards as an affiliate of the terrorist-designated PKK in Turkey. Moscow, though, tried to appease Ankara with alternative ways of inviting Kurdish representatives without involving the PYD as a political bloc. Iran was also worried about the possibility of weakening Bashar Al Assad through the Sochi process.

Similar doubts about the Sochi process exist in western policy circles. Western countries involved in the Syrian conflict are rightly concerned that the Russian plan is to redraw the political map in the country outside the Geneva process, which they still insist on. Russia, while it undoubtedly seeks to do so, is nonetheless interested in maintaining the Geneva process as the internationally accepted platform to legitimise and enshrine whatever it achieves through processes led by it.

However, the opposition’s apparent “awakening” over the past few days could present a serious risk to what Russia has achieved in recent months. The Astana process has been accepted by various representatives of the Syrian opposition, especially those operating with armed groups inside the country. Those representatives pressed what they viewed as necessary deals to reduce violence. The support for such deals was also built on a long-held sentiment within the opposition on the ground that Russia was a better guarantor of ceasefires than the regime, which had struck deals but consistently violated them.

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With the Sochi process, the opposition was more divided but there was not a serious push against it. Lately, this seems to have changed. And the change has been noticeable, with many opposition insiders attributing it to external pressure, whether from Turkey or the United States. The outcry is directed at Sochi as a potential alternative to Geneva as well as Russia’s deteriorating image as a broker.

If the US is keen to protect the Geneva process, it has to take advantage of the opposition’s consensus over the Sochi talks and of the suspicion in regional and western capitals about it. The US has to go further than disrupting the Russian plan to redefine the Geneva process, mainly by focusing on a two-pronged approach.

The first is to influence the political process regardless of stagnation in Geneva, much as Moscow has done over the past two years. It could revitalise the role of its regional allies to gradually take control of the process in Syria. Now that the priority of extricating ISIL from its hideouts has been largely achieved, the American focus will naturally turn to issues Washington has placed on the back burner, which had enabled Russia to redraw the map and carve its own geopolitical route on the ground.

The second part of its effort should involve Russia’s greatest gains in Syria after ensuring the survival of the regime, namely its alliance with Turkey in Syria. The US has to make it a priority to realign Turkish interests with its general outlook in Syria. Make no mistake, the task is very complicated, especially since American leverage today hinges on aligning itself with the PYD, the force that Turkey wants to destroy. But the US policy is not sustainable and has far too many enemies to survive without some buy-in from Turkey, without capitulation to Ankara’s wishlist.

The Turkish-American cold war in Syria is creating more problems along the way. A measure of the extent of Turkey’s commitment to oppose US policy is that Ankara had to drop its priorities of calling for a regime change in Damascus and instead work closely with Moscow in a way favourable to the regime. The US cannot forever choose to put all its eggs in the PYD’s basket, which floats amid a sea of demographic fault lines and geopolitical hostilities, emanating from the areas the party’s militias control, as well as Turkey, Iran and the regime, for different reasons.

On the other hand, the US has every interest in finding a sensible formula to ensure the sustainability of its partner on the ground in Syria. That could happen by building on a pre-existing, if feeble, effort to truly turn the Syrian Democratic Forces into a national – not a Kurdish – project.

After the US defeat of ISIL in Syria, it increasingly finds itself facing a reality of the Syrian conflict it long sought to avoid in favour of a focused military operation. In 2014, it sought to focus all parties on the goal of defeating ISIL, rather than on the broader context of the conflict, which had given rise to the terrorist organisation in the first place.

Russia, Iran and the regime expect the US to leave Syria at some point. The US knows this would ensure the return of jihadis, whether ISIL or other groups. If it wants to stabilise and rehabilitate places like Raqqa, directly or through the help of countries like Saudi Arabia or European nations, it will need Turkey to make that possible logistically and politically.

The US could use the leverage it currently has, in the form of presence on the ground, to focus on the conflict again and influence events in the country it seeks to stabilise. This could happen by actively working to weaken the Russian grip on the political process and thus the direction of the conflict.